A New Year's Greeting For The Ages: Jefferson's Jan. 1 Letter To The Danbury Baptists Still Rings True

I love Thomas Jefferson's New Year's Day greeting to the Danbury Baptists in part because it drives the Religious Right into such paroxysms of paranoia, ignorance and intemperance.

As I'm sure most of you know, President Jefferson sent a friendly missive to his Baptist admirers in Connecticut on Jan. 1, 1802. He thanked them for their support of him and of religious liberty. He also celebrated the First Amendment's religious liberty provisions and expressed sympathy for the Baptists' plight in a state where religious minorities still faced government hostility.

Jefferson famously observed:   "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties."

Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor has proved handy over the years as a convenient means of describing the relationship between religion and government in the United States. Religious and political leaders, judges and citizen activists have often cited that protective constitutional barrier as they battle for true religious liberty, and many of us still do.

To the theocracy-minded, however, Jefferson's wall is a never-ending source of sorrow. It stands between them and their goal of a government that imposes their religion on everyone by force of law.

Recently, Townhall pundit Christopher Merola launched two incendiary columns at the wall and those who support it. His essays are so pathetically mired in inaccuracies, smears and conspiracy theories, they would make a John Birch Society acolyte blush. He rails against Supreme Court's 1947 Everson opinion that celebrated Jefferson's wall and he singles out Justice Hugo Black and others who support it for vitriolic abuse.

Merola says Everson was "horribly decided" and charges that "FDR appointee Hugo Black, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, reinterpreted the meaning of the First Amendment of the Constitution." He says Black took Jefferson's wall metaphor "completely out of context" and "limited the religious liberty of all Americans."

Merola claims that thanks to the Supreme Court, little girls are kept from praying in public school and he hints darkly that anti-God conspiracies kept references to religion out of the new Capitol Visitors Center.

Like all good Red-baiters, Merola traces the problem to communists and the ACLU.

"We must not," he says, " allow ourselves to buy into the delusion of Roger Baldwin, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a member of the Communist Party of the USA, who desired the removal of all references to God from the public square."

Merola concludes, "Consider what has occurred in the last sixty years or so.  The freedom of religion in America has been limited and even demonized in some cases, due to a lie that began with a member of the Communist Party of the USA, who influenced an FDR appointee to the Supreme Court, who was himself a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It's totally insane! "

What's insane, of course, is Merola's take on American history and the protections of our Constitution.

Justice Black was indeed a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his Alabama youth. But Black's record on the high court shows no hint of racial and religious bigotry. On the contrary, his decisions upheld the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans. (In the Everson case itself, Black called for high wall of separation, but at the same time he ruled in favor of bus transportation aid to Catholic schools. That's hardly the work of an anti-Catholic bigot!)

As for the actions of Franklin Roosevelt and the ACLU, I'll let their records speak for themselves. Right-wingers have made Roosevelt a villain for years, but most Americans still regard him as a great leader who brought us out of the Great Depression and saved the world from fascism in the Second World War.

Say what you will about the ACLU – I don't agree with them all the time myself -- but Americans' rights would be less firmly established if that organization were never founded.

Put simply, there is no KKK-Communist-ACLU-FDR plot to end religious liberty in America.   It's absurd to think that the far-right KKK has ever worked in tandem with communists and Franklin Roosevelt to restrict civil liberties. Hey, Merola, you left the Masons, the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, the UN and the Mafia out of your little conspiracy theory. Get out your tin foil hat, buddy, and add some new players to your imaginative and imaginary drama!

Merola, by the way, is described as "the Political Director for Political Media, Inc, a political advertising and public relations firm in Washington, DC." Isn't it sad that politics and public relations in the nation's capital sometimes sink to this level?

Here's the real scoop. From Jefferson on, thoughtful Americans have understood that true religious liberty means that government stays out of religious matters. That's not a plot; it's common sense – and it's the mandate of our Constitution. The American people have, indeed, built a wall of separation between church and state, and it will take more than the ravings of Religious Right zealots such as Merola to tear it down.

Happy New Year, everybody! 2009 looks brighter on the civil liberties front than 2008, but we'll still need your help in stalwart defending church-state separation. Stay with us!!